Is it possible that virtual reality--the stuff of Matrix movies and futuristic fantasy--helps elderly stroke survivors along the road to recovery? Researchers from the University of Toronto think it's a question worth investigating, and have already begun a pilot study of stroke survivors 60 years and older to explore the possible benefits of this immersive, interactive, 3-D computer experience.
Theoretically, the researchers explain, virtual reality can encourage competence, expression and pleasure in leisure activities in older stroke survivors. They believe that virtual reality has the potential to offer people with disabilities greater control over events in their environment, thereby contributing to a sense of competence and satisfaction with life.
How might this be possible? The Mandala® Gesture Xtreme virtual reality system uses a video camera as a capturing and tracking device to give the user the sense of being immersed in the virtual environment. The user sees herself on a television screen while the virtual reality system responds to her movements. The user does not have to wear, touch or hold anything, making this system especially ideal for the disabled elderly. By means of the system's video gesture capability, the user's movements (reaching, bending) trigger visible or invisible icons to score points and manipulate animations, such as playing a virtual drum kit.
One concept the investigators use to illustrate how disabled elderly interact with and may benefit from virtual environments is entexturing--the awareness of the body with respect to a variety of sensory stimuli (space, light, colour, sound) and the regulation of activity surrounding the body in order to produce a finely articulated and satisfying whole. In the virtual environment shown here, the user was required to reach out to the sides and across her body to hit the various drums placed around her. By hitting the drums, the user is executing an activity by responding to auditory and visual stimuli, creating a rhythm and expressing creativity.
The use of virtual reality, according to the investigators, can be a positive addition to the lives of people recovering from stroke. Although they will be focusing on the social and psychological benefits of virtual reality, the potential physical gains, such as improved balance and range of motion, merit exploration as well.